Black and White are two orphans who roam the streets of Treasure Town, beating down any thug or yakuza who gets in their way. When mysterious foreign entrepreneurs appear with the intention of tearing the city down and replacing it with an amusement park, Black and White face their greatest adversaries yet. The self-destructive, violent, and impulsive Black takes it upon himself to save the fate of the city, while the simpleminded and gentle White starts to realize that he must also save Black from his own dark personality.
There is a very tricky distinction between what I find to be refreshingly simple and what I conversely find to be irritatingly simplistic. I'll admit that this is, unfortunately, one of the most subjective criticisms I can make, and there is one particular film that is a perfect example of how how tricky it is, demonstrating that a story which fascinates others may very well seem banal to me and that perception of that aspect can be entirely dependent on the viewer. That film is Tekkon Kinkreet, a 2006 film directed by the American-born Michael Arias, which takes an ambitious if slightly sloppy artistic leap and yet stumbles when it fails to find a complementary narrative purpose, satisfying itself with a simple allegory that is, in my opinion, too bland and derivative to make a compelling story.
Tekkon Kinkreet certainly does stand out visually. The film's characters are quite strange-looking, with the combination of narrow, almond-shaped eyes, legs that are too thin to logically support human bodies, and geometrically-framed hair and facial expressions almost making them into beasts of imagination rather than people. It's as if all of art's points and sharp edges ended up here when the general appearance of Japanese animation developed its signature smoothness, and the result, if not exactly pretty, is at least interesting. Quite frankly, I found the film's characters to all be well-detailed but monstrously ugly: one could make the tired joke that this is a film about snot-nosed brats, but I could literally point out to her that all of the children have gobs of phlegm traveling down their faces for good chunks of the movie. And yet I don't think that attractiveness is exactly what Tekkon Kinkreet intends: it instead strives to be a surrealistic extravaganza, possibly akin to a child's dream. There are, indeed, some rather nifty scenes of characters literally floating in space above Treasure Town, making physically impossible jumps, and swimming through vibrantly colored coral reefs that call this ambition to attention, and these flights of fancy were, unsurprisingly, the parts that I enjoyed the most.
Having heard so much about the film's purported visual wonders, however, I was surprised to find that I was strangely underwhelmed by how much the cinematography actually accomplished. Sure, there was the occasional dream sequence or deformity that brought the joy of being flung into artistic distortion upon me, but I never felt as if the film's animation (which, while adequate, seemed as if it could not quite keep up with the strange visual style) or visual ideas could keep pace with the artistic ambition, and this ended up making it seem like an artbook for a style that I found interesting but not entirely to my tastes. For while Treasure Town itself is a gloriously realized metropolis of graffiti, Chinese statuary, and Brazilian slum shacks, I could never entirely get past the fact that the characters were not only ugly but very limited in expression. I've seen animators like Sylvain Chomet restrain themselves within a very narrow range of facial expression for all but a few seconds, cleverly highlighting key changes in those bare intervals; this film, on the other hand, maintains that narrow range and never transcends it. While I do admire the care with which the art seems to have been taken, an increased percentage of the promised dynamic surrealism would have improved it, and it might even just have gotten me to move past the unappealing style.
And once I did move past the film's visuals, I unfortunately found a piece that was at best a decent if unremarkable light-hearted tale and at the very worst a pretentious allegory resting on a premise that I found to be completely boring. For one thing, most of the characters in Tekkon Kinkreet are nicknamed after objects, colors, or concepts such as "vanilla", "chocolate", or "snake", with the main characters being a pair of young orphans who have styled themselves as "Black" and "White". Even at the very beginning, I had an uneasy notion that these two would be endlessly bounced off each other in a tired "yin and yang" comparison, and as the film continually failed to develop the pair beyond Black's outward gruffness and White's apparently admirable naivety, that unease only grew. I generally found the two to be an uninteresting pair of leads, and while Black, at least, had a moment at which his titular moral "darkness" was taken to an extreme, his transformation felt entirely illogical. Essentially, Black, after having appeared in the "grumpy but loving big brother" role for the first half of the film, abruptly rejects White in an angry rage (after a moment at which White has almost died, to boot), spending the rest of the film wallowing as the "crazy and troubled loner" archetype whose presentation is completely melodramatic rather than at all affecting.
It is his companion, however, with whom I take the biggest issue with, and who ultimately ruined the film for me. White is, basically, an 11-year old child who behaves like a toddler: he can only count to ten, he wears childish clothing, he cannot wash or dress himself, and he appears to be entirely dependent on Black for support. The film represents him as a rare manifestation of "angelic purity" in a city that the cast claims is doomed to die and crumble, and in what appears to be the film's central motif, his character is endlessly held up as paragon of lost innocence. The problem, sadly, is that I find the theme of purity to be both overused and uninteresting. Is it truly beneficial to remain "innocent" if one experiences no intellectual growth in life? I personally don't think it is, and I also find the premise of "untouched" people to be directly contradictory to the general principle that human neurological development derives from subconscious acquisition and is thus in a constantly-evolving state. As a result, White struck me as intellectual banality, immaturity, and mental deficiency being upheld as a golden standard, and this, coupled with the fact that he's largely the same at film's end, both insults the beauty of the human mind and denies its potential. Indeed, I found the film to be almost dogmatically moralistic, with the main story being a new "development ruining our humble neighborhood" idea I see in countless family films and pieces of environmentalist propaganda and the villain being a character who is so unquestionably evil that his name is "Herr Snake" (in yet another tired and unfortunate disservice to that animal). The film, frankly, tries to pass up moral manipulation for thoughtfulness, and the greatest depth it ever reaches is a brief and tangential discussion of God's existence that, once again, seems to center on the "White is the pure, innocent, and trusting lamb and Black is the soiled skeptic" tactic while refusing to make a meaningful discussion out of it. I honestly felt neither fascination at the film nor any love for its characters, and unfortunately, no degree of visual ambition will make up for that mistake.
I also cannot deny that while watching Tekkon Kinkreet, I felt as if it intentionally derived plot elements and key moments from other movies as a means to maintain a narrative, entirely refusing to provide a framework of its own and yet embarrassingly bungling even the stolen elements. The film, for one thing, sets the kids up as a street gang akin to those seen in Akira (in which they are reportedly the masters of the town), with Black and White appearing to make a new Tetsuo and Kaneda and Treasure Town being, at least according to the film's dialogue, yet another representative slum of sin, emptiness, and ruin. I, however, could count perhaps 10 minutes in which Black's gang was at all important to the plot, and the city, if a little dirty, looked like any basic bustling and thriving metropolis to me. The moral commentary, as a result, seemed superfluous, and the story about the developers clearing away the "dead slum" made no sense. I unfortunately found the film's climax to be clumsy and highly derivative of Akira as well, and it, as a result, was entirely sapped of effectiveness. At the very beginning, the movie makes a few tantalizing verbal hints about the existence of a supposedly-fearsome child named "Minotaur", who is never again mentioned until the end, where he suddenly appears to save Black as a sort of "protective demon" quite unlike the tough street punk the dialogue indicates him to be. A confusing sequence in which the film appears to tell a tired "man has sold his soul to the devil" tale ensues, and while the scene eventually does resolve, it happens with so little emphasis and in such a drawn-out and confusing manner that I came away with a bad headache. I usually try to avoid this sort of comparison while writing reviews, but the fact remains that I found Treasure Town to be a newer and inferior attempt at making Neo-Tokyo, and while I have, in the past, managed to enjoy a few pieces in spite of some visibly-lifted elements, those works either improved on their predecessor or achieved success with their own innovations. Tekkon Kinkreet simply takes the frame and hopes that its own stylistic flair can cover up the fact that it has run out of glass to put in that frame.
I will admit, as said, that my opinion of Tekkon Kinkreet may rest on subjective interpretation more so than that of any other film I've reviewed or tried to review, and yet the fact remains that I am indifferent to it. While I admire the ambition of the artistry and thought that a few moments were charming, I never found it to be deeply interesting, emotionally engaging, or even all that funny. It shoved "pure is good" down my throat to a point at which, by the end, I could no longer take it seriously or even stand to watch it, and it was populated by a cast of characters I neither cared for nor, ultimately, wanted to learn much more about. It is a film that knows exactly how to impress with cutting-edge clothes but has no idea of what it actually wants to say, and once every movie is stripped naked and placed on equal terms with the surrounding works, I find that there are many other nudes that make a much better use of my time.
There's enough interesting art on display to give this a second star, but the one thing I can never forgive a film for doing is boring me. Add a star if you find the importance of purity to be an effective topic, and add as many as you'd like if you enjoy the art rather than merely find it interesting. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: The subtitled version contains a few utterances of mild profanity, and there are some disturbing (if not particularly graphic) sequences that involve impalement, gun violence, and death, as well as one implicit sex scene. To be honest, however, I find the MPAA's "R" rating to be a little too harsh, and I think that anybody above the age of 13 could probably watch this with relatively few issues.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD (Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (1/1)
Tekkon Kinkreet © 2006 Studio 4˚C
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